Kosovars grow weary of EU’s privatised visa regime
This article was originally produced for and published by Kosovo 2.0. It has been re-published here with permission.
"Why doesn’t he get a megaphone?" asks a 73-year-old woman waiting among around 50 other people in front of the Pristina offices of TLScontact, an international visa-application centre. From the back of the line she can hardly hear the guard reading out names from a piece of paper, so she keeps her eyes on his mouth, like many of the others nervously waiting in line, and tries to read his lips.
Another name is called out.
"That’s me," a man says, interrupting the quiet noises of applicants flipping through their papers and folders. Everyone makes room as he shuffles to the front of the queue.
The rest wait. They ask each other questions. "Is this your first time?" "Where to?" Some ask for tips from those who’ve been here before.
Despite the exhaustion, there is a sense of solidarity. People give each other advice and offer more comfortable waiting spots to the elderly. "Good luck," they say to each other, convinced as they are that it all depends on luck.
The guard shouts another name but no one responds. He raises his voice and tries again. The urgency of his voice unsettles the crowd.
People periodically exit the building carrying envelopes that hold their fate inside. Was their visa application approved or rejected? Will they be able to visit their family? Go on vacation? Get medical treatment abroad? Some play it cool and walk off with their sealed envelope in hand. Others anxiously tear it open the second they get outside. Some celebrate and immediately call their loved ones with the good news. Others look dejected, and walk off either angry or dazed.
A new face joins the queue.
Everyone except Kosovo
"The people of a multiethnic and a democratic Kosovo will have their place in Europe," reads a statement from the European Union from a few days before the 2003 Thessaloniki summit. "The Balkans will be an integral part of a unified Europe."
The EU partially fulfilled this second promise by 2010, when citizens of all Balkan countries were free from expensive and bureaucratic visa requirements to enter Schengen countries on a short term basis.
Only in 2012 did the EU provide Kosovo with a visa roadmap, the requirements the country would have to fulfil to gain access to visa-free travel to the Schengen area.
While neighbouring countries received roadmaps back in 2008 with 40 requirements each, Kosovo’s had 93.
By 2016 Kosovo had ticked off all the boxes on the roadmap. Then the EU introduced two new requirements: ratification of a border demarcation deal with Montenegro and improvements in the fight against corruption.
In March 2018, against strong opposition, Kosovo’s legislature ratified the agreement for border demarcation and a few months later the European Commission confirmed that Kosovo had fulfilled the benchmarks. It would now be up to the EU Council and EU Parliament to adopt the proposal to lift the visa regime for Kosovo, a step that has continuously been blocked, particularly by France and the Netherlands.
While Kosovars must jump endless hurdles to travel to EU states, Kosovo has symbolically welcomed the EU wholeheartedly. When Kosovo declared independence in 2008, the de facto national anthem was Ode to Joy, the anthem of the EU and the EU Council.
Kosovo’s current anthem is a lyric-less song titled "Europe" and the national flag was designed to resemble the EU flag, a nod to the country’s dreams of European integration.
Though the EU encourages this symbolic identification with Europe and repeats the mantra that "Kosovo’s future belongs in the EU," its visa regime suggests otherwise.
In late 2022, the European Parliament and Council announced that Kosovo would have visa liberalisation by 2024 at the latest. But the response in Kosovo was tepid, given the years of unfulfilled visa promises from the EU. For over a decade, Kosovars have been some of the last Europeans who must deal with expensive, time-consuming and at times arbitrary visa application procedures in order to travel through Europe. With the recent outsourcing of short-term visa processing to private companies, there are additional concerns about data privacy, extra charges and violations of the EU visa code.
A messy process
Enduena Klajiqi was 17 when she got the news that she was accepted to a university in Belgium. The joy of the acceptance letter was soon overshadowed by the process of securing a long-term visa.
She started to collect the necessary papers: proof of her parents’ salaries and work contracts, a court document showing that she wasn’t under criminal investigation, x-rays, blood tests and more. To be accepted by the embassy, her medical records had to be signed by the head of the Infectious Disease Clinic at Kosovo’s University Clinic. It took her three days to track him down. "When I found him he was at a meeting, there was nothing I could do so a nurse told me to just sit and wait near his office," she said. "It is a very messy process."
Because Belgium does not have an embassy in Kosovo and their outsourced visa-processing services in country only handle short-term visas, Klajiqi had to first get a visa to travel to Bulgaria (which is part of the EU but not part of the Schengen area) in order to apply for a visa at the Belgian embassy in Sofia.
"The procedure is ridiculous," she said, "having to apply for a visa in order to apply for a visa."
But no matter how onerous or expensive, "they know we will do it," she said. "They know that whatever happens we will find the documents, we will find a way, we will find the money to finish all the procedures."
We spoke with over a dozen Kosovars who have applied for multiple Schengen visas — all of them highlighted the dehumanising aspects of the process. Contemporary artist Driton Selmani, who must travel frequently for exhibitions and work, said, "Every time I have to apply, at some point I end up asking myself: Should I just give up?"
The visa code, the document regulating visa application procedures for EU member states, is supposed to ensure that the "human dignity and integrity of applicants" is respected. None of the Kosovars we spoke with were aware of the existence of the visa code and many have since learned that visa code regulations were not upheld in some of their past applications. Albanian is not one of the 25 languages the code is available in.
Between 2013 and 2015, most EU countries outsourced visa application processing for Kosovars to two private companies, TLScontact and VFS Global.
TLScontact is an EU-registered company with headquarters in Paris that processes four million visa applications worldwide annually. It registered in Kosovo in 2018 and operates in 89 other countries. The Swiss embassy — which in Kosovo represents Luxembourg, Austria, France, Belgium and the Netherlands for short-term visa applications — has outsourced visa services to TLScontact.
The Swiss Embassy told us that they did so due to an increase in visa applications, limited human resources and the new burden of including biometric data collection in visa procedures. It was a decision, they said, "taken in the interest of the customers" that would increase their capacities.
VFS Global, headquartered in Dubai, operates in 144 countries. In Kosovo, the embassies of Sweden, Norway, Finland, Slovenia and Croatia outsource their visa application procedures to VFS.
The Croatian Embassy in Kosovo told us that they outsourced visa applications to VFS because "it enabled faster processing of visa applications [and] improved service standards for visa applicants."
Since September 2022, Germany’s visa services have been outsourced to the company VisaMetric, which registered in Kosovo in 2021. According to their website, they operate more than 100 visa-application centres in 11 countries.
Though all this outsourcing was done in the name of efficiency, many Kosovars find the current process to be as confusing and discouraging as ever. "In recent years, the wait has prolonged. In the last two years it has been a catastrophe," said Fitore Gashi, a web-developer currently living in Germany.
One of the main difficulties is obtaining a visa appointment. Though the visa code calls for visa appointments to be available within two weeks, Kosovars often must wait at least a month and as long as five.
In August 2022, we contacted TLScontact to ask for their earliest appointment. None were available until October.
In a statement to us, the German embassy said that after outsourcing visa processing to VisaMetric, wait times for appointments have been reduced from as much as six months down to two (which is still four times as long as the visa code calls for.)
LGBTQ+ activist Blert Morina faced problems due to these delays last autumn, when he was set to attend a meeting of human rights defenders in Sweden. He said that though the event organisers wrote to the Swedish embassy one month prior to the departure date, the only available appointment was five days before the start of the meeting, leaving little time to receive a response and plan the trip accordingly.
The visa code calls for visa applicants to receive a decision on their application within 15 days, though it sometimes takes longer.
Morina did receive his visa in the end, but he was given roughly two hours’ notice that he had to immediately travel from Pristina to pick it up at the Swedish Embassy in Skopje, North Macedonia.
The Swedish embassy blames Covid for the visa application delays and said that "most applicants receive an appointment at VFS within a few weeks." VFS has not responded to our questions.
Eroll Bilibani, the producer and head of DokuLab, Dokufest film festival’s educational program, has faced challenges helping his students access arts and cultural events in the EU due to these visa appointment delays. DokuLab students, he said, "cannot make spontaneous decisions to go somewhere, to see something. They need to plan to attend an exhibition three to five months in advance. This is truly a great discrimination."
Obtaining a visa appointment is easier for those who can afford to pay up for premium services. VFS touts that for an additional €30 fee, applicants can submit their applications on the day of their choice, receive assistance from a dedicated team member and submit any missing documents on the same day. An additional €12 fee allows applicants to submit their application outside normal work hours. TLScontact and VisaMetric offer similar "Added Value" and "VIP" services.
Liri Hashani, 23, learned in November that some of these added value options are in fact mandatory. When she applied for a German visa at VisaMetric late last year, she was surprised that in addition to the normal €30 service fee, she was required to pay for an additional €30 "VIP service" to have her passport delivered to her home by courier, despite her desire to pick the passport up at the office herself.
The visa code states that the service fee paid to the visa application processor must not exceed €40. It is unclear if the requirement for applicants to pay €60 for the combined service and courier fees violates the visa code or not. Either way, Kosovars are bristling at the additional fee.
In a twitter exchange about VisaMetric’s fee structure, Kaltrina Hoxha noted sardonically: "I live in the same building with VisaMetric, I can go there in my slippers. Still €30" [for the courier service].
In a statement to us, the German embassy said that they approved VisaMetric’s decision to make the courier fee mandatory "in order to maximise the number of applications accepted and processed while avoiding overcrowding of the visa centre premises."
In addition, VisaMetric’s website states: "For family applications (spouse and children), the fee of €30 has to be paid only once. When booking an appointment the charged fee of €30 per person will be reimbursed for the remaining family members on the day of the application." A VisaMetric employee spoke with us and said that the company encourages employees to not honour this promise and to withhold reimbursement.
We sent a detailed list of questions on the matter to VisaMetric but has not received a response.
600,000 visa applications, €99m
Securing an appointment is merely the first step in applying for a visa, a process that involves long lines and trips to a number of offices to collect the required documents.
After arriving at the application centre, many complain that they often must wait long after their set appointment to submit their documents. Morina and others also describe the visa application centre staff as aggressive and rude.
For some, the endless queuing and general disrespect emphasises the feeling that the EU wants to keep Kosovars out. "I never understood, why do they have to yell?" Selmani asked, speaking of the visa centres’ employees.
TLScontact said that they try to welcome applicants in pleasant conditions and that the long queues are due to applicants "arriving much too early to their appointments."
According to an employee at VisaMetric, applicants are frequently kept waiting three hours beyond their scheduled appointments.
Applying for a visa costs not just time, but money. According to one report, the estimated cost for one application is €165.
According to the latest data from the Kosovo Agency of Statistics, the average public sector monthly income in Kosovo is €542. The average private sector salary is €376.
Between 2014 and 2021, Kosovars submitted around 600,000 Schengen visa applications. At €165 per application, in these eight years Kosovars will have spent almost €99m applying for short-term visas. Across this time period, roughly 20 percent of these applications were rejected.
Costs can be much higher in cases like Enduena Klajiqi’s. After visa-related fees for Bulgaria, travel costs to Sofia and visa-related fees for Belgium, she spent upwards of €500.
Though the visa code includes provisions for fee waivers for a wide range of cultural and educational visits (particularly for those under the age of 25), many Kosovars who are entitled to these waivers end up paying anyway.
The Swiss Embassy told us that TLScontact is responsible for checking visa fee-waiver eligibility. The company includes no information about visa fee-waivers on their website. The Swiss embassy noted that the visa code is available to the public, despite the fact that it is not available in Albanian.
TLScontact said that they do not include information on fee-waivers on their website because it relates "to decisions taken by our government client, not by TLScontact. Information is available on the government website."
The Swedish embassy, which VFS processes visas for, said that "the embassy makes sure that the right fees are paid and that fee-waivers are applied. The embassy assists VFS if they have any question when someone applies and makes sure that fees are reimbursed if a mistake has been made."
VisaMetric’s website includes information only about fee-waivers due to age.
Nevertheless, we spoke with a number of people who were eligible for a fee-waiver but who ended up paying the fee. Dafina Fondaj, a pharmacist, paid the fee for her visa to travel to the University of Lublin in Poland to conduct research for her master’s thesis, scientific research that Kosovo does not have the facilities to support. She was also under 25 at the time.
Flaka Rrustemi, who traveled to Italy when she was 22 to participate in a festival through an NGO, had to pay her visa fee, along with other colleagues under the age of 25. "Unfortunately, our access to information is quite limited and the employees at the embassy do not inform us about such things," she said, referring to the fact that the group didn’t know they were eligible for a fee-waiver.
Eroll Bilibani also noted that Dokufest sends Kosovars between the ages of 17 and 20 on educational trips and cultural exchanges to the EU and has had to pay visa fees for the students.
Even when Kosovars get a visa, they are sometimes issued ones that have durations of stay or periods of validity shorter than what the visa code calls for.
The code states that "the period of validity of a visa for one entry shall include a ‘period of grace’ of 15 calendar days" and includes an example of what the grace period calculation looks like: "date of arrival + duration of stay + 15 days of ‘period of grace.’"
But we have seen visas granted to Kosovars from EU member states that have periods of validity of seven days and durations of stay as short as four days.
Short validities and durations of stay for visas can be anxiety inducing because a canceled or delayed flight, or other unforeseen event, can cause a visa-holder to overstay their Schengen visa, which may prevent them from receiving a visa in the future.
Dardan Konjufca, a young man from Kosovo, faced just such a situation when his flight to Pristina from Germany was canceled just 10 minutes before the gate was supposed to open. Konjufca wasn’t worried about the normal headaches associated with canceled flights, but rather that his visa was set to expire the next day and the airline had offered him alternative flights for two days later.
While others were preparing to stay in Germany a bit longer than planned, Konjufca was preoccupied with finding another flight out the same day so he would not breach his visa, particularly after a German customs officer told him he had to leave Germany immediately.
Though Konjufca asked the airline to put him on a flight the same day, he says they told him there was nothing they could do. He was forced to pay for another flight leaving that day in order to not violate his visa. The initial airline refused to reimburse him for his canceled flight because they had offered him an alternate.
Blert Morina had a similar experience with a delayed flight. "We were at a four day workshop and our duration of stay in the visa was four days. The flight was delayed a bit and we were so stressed about whether we could arrive on time or not," he said.
Others face the frustration of getting short-term visas, despite asking for long-term ones.
Donika Qerimi applied for a visa in 2018 to go to Belgium in order to defend her PhD. There were portions of the defence in December and in January, so she requested a multi-week visa that would cover the whole period. She received a visa for four days instead. She had to file a complaint in order to receive a visa that covered the whole trip.
The cascade system, which regulates the lengths of visas granted to repeat visa-holders, is supposed to prevent such things from happening.
When travellers on short term visas have a track record of receiving and complying with the terms of past Schengen visas, they are entitled to receive increasingly longer multi-entry visa stays.
A multi-entry visa valid for up to five years can be issued to applicants who demonstrate a need to travel frequently or regularly, provided they prove their lawful use of previous visas, their economic situation in their country of origin and their genuine intention to leave the Schengen area before the expiration of their visa.
We have seen a number of Kosovar passports with visas that do not follow the cascade system. For example, although Selmani, Bilibani, Qerimi and Morina all said they have been regularly traveling to the EU for over a decade, none has received a five-year visa and some have been given short-term visas, sometimes as short as a few days, after having previously held long-term multi-entry visas.
Bilibani said that despite never breaking any visa rules and traveling frequently, he was recently granted a six-month visa after previously having held a three-year visa, a seeming violation of the cascade system.
The Swiss, German, Swedish and Croatian embassies have all said that they strictly apply the system.
Even receiving a short-term visa is experienced as a victory, because it is common for applications to get rejected on what appears to be an arbitrary basis.
Morina has been rejected five times and is doubtful he’ll try again if he has to apply.
Bilibani was also rejected once. In 2018, he was invited to speak at the Berlin International Film Festival — but the German embassy denied him a visa with the justification that a document was missing.
Missing documents are a particular scourge for visa applicants because the requirement to provide "documents in relation to accommodation, or proof of sufficient means to cover accommodation" can be interpreted subjectively.
The visa code states that when application reviewers determine that sufficient documents have not been provided then the application is inadmissible and the reviewing body should without delay "return the application form and any documents submitted by the applicant, destroy the collected biometric data, reimburse the visa fee, and not examine the application."
Bilibani said that in his case the above procedure was not applied and that his visa was examined, and then rejected.
A number of people have told us of experiences when visa processors informed them that their applications were missing documents, including ones which were nowhere listed as a required document for an application. They were then offered the possibility of submitting the missing document for an additional fee.
TLSContact and the Swiss Embassy deny that there is a mandatory fee to submit a missing document. VFS and VisaMetric did not respond to questions on the matter.
Applicants whose applications are rejected have the right to appeal. It can be a burdensome or expensive process and each country has its own procedures. While appealing a visa rejection from the Swiss embassy costs around €200, more than it costs to apply for a visa, an appeal to Sweden or Norway does not require a fee. An appeal to the Croatian embassy costs €43.
Data protection, transparency and privacy?
In 2018, the EU enacted the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which gives EU citizens and residents more control over how their internet data is collected, used and protected. Strict rules now require organisations to secure the personal data they collect through safeguards like mandatory encryption. The GDPR also gives EU citizens and residents the right to retrieve personal data from public and private institutions.
We spoke with scholars and activists who specialise in public governance and issues related to the GDPR who raised questions and concerns about TLScontact’s accumulation and processing of data from non-EU nationals. Who, they asked, owns the medical, legal and financial data of the tens of thousands of Kosovars who apply for EU visas every year through TLScontact?
Before outsourcing their visa services, the consulates or embassies handled every part of the visa process. Now private companies are tasked with handling and protecting the sensitive documents and information that is required to receive a visa, which, depending on the country, could include details about HIV status, bank savings and account numbers, mental health conditions, sexual orientation and more.
Switzerland, which handles applications for many Schengen-area countries, is not an EU member nor must it comply with the GDPR.
However, TLScontact, which handles Switzerland’s visa processing and is an EU company, is required to comply with GDPR privacy and data rules even when dealing with non-EU citizens like Kosovars. The Swiss Embassy told us that they comply with the GDPR in all parts of the visa application process and TLScontact said that all data they collect from visa applicants "is fully encrypted and then sent to secure government servers, before being purged from our systems."
A key component of GDPR safeguards is that EU citizens and residents must be fully informed how their data will be used.
We submitted questions to EU member state embassies in Kosovo who are represented by TLScontact, VFS or VisaMetric about how exactly they use applicants’ data. The few who responded stated generally that they take data security seriously and adhere to the GDPR throughout the visa application process.
However, an employee at VisaMetric’s Prishtina offices told us that there is little regard for the protection of applicants’ physical documents and data in the process of transporting applications to and from the German embassy and then onward to applicants through the courier service.
According to this employee, the lax procedures have led to applicants’ documents or passports being lost. VisaMetric did not respond to a request for comment.
Concerns about privacy and data protection were at the centre of some politicians’ and activists’ protests in Germany when the country announced in 2017 that they planned to begin transferring visa application-processing to private companies.
We spoke with Thomas Tombal, a researcher at the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands who works on data protection and data governance issues, about information provided to us by TLScontact. He expressed concern that they don’t indicate what kind of data EU governments use or for what purpose.
"In these responses [from TLScontact], a lot gets lost in translation: what are the responsibilities of the public guarantor — the embassy — the private company, and the legislation in place where they operate," said Tombal.
Though TLScontact told us that they "do not sell the personal data collected from visa applicants," their website says that they transfer "some personal data to countries, territories, or organisations that are located outside the European Economic Area." It is unclear whose data they transfer, under what legal basis and to whom.
Concerns about privacy go beyond arcane data protection laws, but efforts to push back can negatively affect applicants’ chances of getting a visa.
When Eroll Bilibani was rejected for his visa to attend the Berlinale in 2017, his visa was rejected because he declined to hand over his bank account statements, showing instead financial statements from the cultural organisation that was covering his trip. "I submitted the bank statements of our organisation because our expenses are covered by the organisation," he said, "so there is no reason why the embassy should want to peek at my personal savings. It is a breach of privacy and it is degrading."
Some Kosovars also complain about privacy breaches in the personal part of the application process.
When Fitore Gashi was applying for a family reunion visa to go to Germany, she had to submit proof of her husband’s employment and salary as part of the documentation. The employee processing her file said, "Wow, what a nice salary your husband has. Where does he work?"
"This is a question they should have never asked me. It is none of their business", said Gashi, who despite feeling affronted at the breach of her privacy, was aware that she was not free to withhold these sensitive documents from the application nor confront the visa processor.
After applying for a visa for Greece, Driton Selmani also had a jarring experience that raised questions about privacy issues. Like all applicants, he had to provide proof of accommodation, in this case by reserving a hotel for his stay. But at one point, because his visa had a period of validity of three months, he chose to postpone his trip by a week and rebook at a different hotel.
Shortly after, he was shocked to receive a phone call from the Liaison Office of Greece in Pristina asking why he’d canceled his hotel reservation. "It felt as if someone had come into my bed right between me and my wife," he said.
We reached out to the liaison office of Greece in Pristina about the incident but has received no response.
"Privacy is a human right; it is enshrined in important EU and international legislation. If certain EU governments deny that right to non-EU citizens, they are saying that the non-EU citizens are not human beings, thus undeserving of this right," said Aral Balkan, a cyber activist based in Ireland.
On December 14, 2022, the same day Kosovo’s leaders signed the country’s application for EU membership, the European Parliament and the Council reached an agreement to "grant short term visa freedom to Kosovo."
The agreement calls for visa freedom to be in place by 2024 at the latest, following the implementation of the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS), an EU border control system.
After years of disregard and eternal delays in the visa-liberalisation roadmap, after years of arbitrary visa application rejections and visa code violations and tens of millions spent in fees, Kosovars are mostly exhausted with the process.
Besides the one to two year wait, it now seems little stands in their way of gaining access to visa-free travel to the EU and the Schengen zone. But Kosovars have had their hopes dashed before, and the reception to the most recent news was muted. Some believe that this is the last step, but to them it’s coming too late.
Meanwhile, Kosovars will continue straining to hear the guard outside the private visa processing centres in Pristina. For at least the rest of this year, they will continue to host celebration dinners when they receive short-term visas and the fortune tellers who specialise in visa affairs — who cast good-luck spells on passports — will continue to do swift business.
"Where is your invitation? Where are you going? How long will you be staying? How much cash do you have on you?" Blert Morina recalls police officers asking him each time he enters the EU. He’s decided that if he needs to travel to the EU any time soon he will only do so if an organisation that has invited him will handle the application process — he’s too frustrated to go through it again on his own only to be treated like a criminal on the border.
Until the day the visa regime is lifted, people like Eroll Bilibani will remain jaded by their travels.
On his last trip to Germany he was stopped in the airport on arrival by a police officer and told to pull out his cash to prove he could cover his expenses. This happened despite the fact that he had a visa and had been invited by an organisation that covered most of his expenses.
"You need to have a bag of documents, to convince them you are good enough for them," he said.